Presumptions of an Erotic Tragedy
The compulsion to express what our audience cannot express, what our audience fears but (what it cannot admit) also desires; we know this compulsion, because we, too, fear and desire.
A woman wearing a green dress, lit alone on a stage, speaking quietly, passionately: she shatters worlds.
If a thousand seat auditorium contains even
one spectator, the house is full.
The story of Oedipus, one of the first and greatest of the tragedies, also formally defines the tragedy, as Aristotle well knew, but defines this genre not in form alone. The terror of the play, the terror of the tragic mode itself, is a tragedy of consciousness. Phoebus Apollo's role as oracle is to bring light to Oedipus, to make him conscious, and Oedipus' flaw is to believe that this consciousness will leave him in control of the world. It does not, for the consciousness of the abyss has no utile value. Consciousness only reveals the impossibility of (self-)control. Oedipus' willed response to full consciousness is to blind himself, but what has been seen can't be unseen, what has been done can't be undone, as Creon reminds him: so consciousness brings exile to the man who thought it would bring him freedom. Having expelled Oedipus and his truth, Thebes is healthy again. But which, Thebes or Oedipus, is truly blind?
Tragedy no longer carries the possibility of redemption in the assumption of godhead, as it did for Oedipus in the groves of Colonus. Our own contribution to contemporary tragedy is an awareness that, in living fully in the material world, we deny the immaterial, the world that lies beyond the maya. The fear of losing our identities is greater than the fear of suffering.
The tragic shows us that beneath all endeavor and activity is the will. We are allowed glimpses of the sublime beauty of will-lessness through the contemplation of suffering. It shows us that we are bound in our bodies, bound in ourselves, bound in and to the world, instead of being bound to each other.
The tragic theater is a forum for recognizing our own suffering and through it sensually recognizing the suffering of the world.
Schopenhauer: "In the tragedy [the highest form of poetic drama] the terrible side of life is presented to us, the wailing and lamentation of mankind, the dominion of chance and error, the fall of the righteous, the triumph of the wicked; and so that aspect of the world is brought before our eyes which directly opposes our will. At this sight we feel ourselves urged to turn our will away from life, to give up willing and loving life. But precisely in this way we become aware that there is still left in us something different that we cannot possibly know positively, but only negatively, as that which does not will life. ... So every tragedy presupposes an existence of an entirely different kind, a different world, the knowledge of which can always be given to us only indirectly, as here by just such a presupposition. ... What gives to everything tragic, whatever the form in which it appears, the characteristic tendency to the sublime, is the dawning of the knowledge that the world and life can afford us no true satisfaction, and are therefore not worth our attachment to them."
A man mails a love letter. The simple gestures of opening and closing the mailbox, posting the billet doux, are each endowed with the power of desire's intent.
The conscious expressed presence of the perceiving subject trapped in a worldly body is defined as an object par excellence to ourselves. The theatrical project is to attempt an impossible demonstration of paradoxes: that through language we can access the potentialities of silence; that through the living body we can escape the suffering of the maya and access a sensuality beyond the terrifying loneliness of individual identity. In sexual ecstasy, our identities dissolve as they are joined for a moment outside of time, and we glimpse where suffering is transformed into joy.
A new recognition of suffering: a recognition that this world provides no respite, and that another world, a world that science and technology have tried to render irrelevant, might. A mythology of transformation and joined transcendence, in sensual language, for our own time. The theatrical project is an erotic project.
Again and again the tragic is entwined with the erotic. Along with kings like Oedipus, the tragic lovers of the past seize our imagination: Abelard and Heloise, Paolo and Francesca, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde. These lovers demonstrate tragedy and transcendence: in this world, Abelard is castrated, Paolo and Francesca killed, Cleopatra suicides. In the other, identities join and meld in an eternity of ecstasy, vouchsafed release from the suffering of the world in an entanglement of limbs and selves, each self distinct but intertwined together: call it a third soul, a relief; the ecstatic moment, everlasting, in which the wheel of Ixion stands still.
Between the possibility of transcending separation in a selfless unity of perception and the messy physicality of copulation lies amusing irony. Between the idea and the reality lies not only shadow, but laughter and comedy.
A language directed to the Other, expressing the Other, that aspires to the possibilities and sensualities of silence in the presence of the Other. What is going through our minds as we look speechlessly at each other?
The intimacy of selves and the theatrical experience: sitting together in the audience, their eyes on the stage, lovers hold hands, rest their hands on each other's bodies. Those same hands must be able to reach out and touch those on the stage. Language and movement elaborate the tension between the impossibility and the potential of doing so (for to reach out and touch the performer is to shatter theatricality; it is groping, not art). It is no surprise that Elizabethan public playhouses were magnets for prostitutes, panderers and their customers, but they transacted their business in the stalls, not on the stage.
Desire, it has been said by others wiser than myself, triangulates: from lover to lover to stage and back again.
A woman's pleasure is a suspicious joy. A man loses himself in ecstasy only in that moment in which he potentially creates another being: his orgasm is physiologically necessary to reproduction. A woman's loss of self and identity in ecstasy with another serves no material purpose, is accompanied by no reproduction of the race's suffering: her orgasm itself serves no reproductive purpose. And so in many cultures it is considered damaging and dangerous because it is a materially useless thing. A woman's pleasure is revolutionary.
The theatre should emulate this pleasure: not to reproduce the world, but to dissolve it, with and in another, in tragic joy.
Burrowed in the depths of noumenal desire, we risk burial in the collapse of the phenomenal world on top of us: when it collapses, as the maya crashes in again, we clasp each other, body to body, in an ecstatic calamity of awareness.
Sex in today's theater, like sex in today's culture, on billboards, on television, in magazines, on our stages, and all too often in our own individual lives, is a pander. It is simple: whatever will get us damp. I've recently been reading several stories in the newspaper about the newest sexual fetish in the Western world: hairlessness, the "Brazilian Wax" for both men and women, the shearing off of mature secondary sexual characteristics, so that we can all play again like children, in that illusory innocence of childhood. The same infantilism that characterizes pornography. The same infantilism that renders "play" childish and comfortable, without risk. The sexual play possible in the theatrical experience is scarcely acknowledged; as art, it should be aesthetic rather than anaesthetic. We must learn to write love letters to each other again.
Narrative and Language
Traditional narrative and character as defined by 20th century realism and naturalism are static, unchanging; they've killed theater. They are aspects of death formally appropriate to the disciplines of film and television. If anything, the history of the 20th century has demonstrated the lengths to which commonly-held cultural narratives can kill. We reclaim the lyrical mode and the protean identity, at the same time that we recognize that narrative can provoke their expression; but narrative must not constrain them. Lyricism suspends life so that it can be fully, sensually contemplated. We manipulate the closure-bearing narrative to our own ends, rather than allowing that narrative to manipulate us.
The achievement of the Jacobean theater: to complete Shakespeare's project of fully integrating, in a lush language of desire, an erotic chaos, a Bacchic, Dionysian chorus, into the individual character.
We have sufficient stories, as the ancient tragedians and Shakespeare well knew; as compelling mythologies, they have provided us with narratives enough, and we should use them still; it's presumptuous to say that because ancient they are hollowed out. They throb and course through our experience of the world. Pay attention instead to the words, passions and transformed bodies these stories have evoked. We contain them all.
Of the contemporary world: tragedies of solitude and desire. What men and women, families, nations, disdaining the past, do to each other in the name of gratification. The depiction of a contemporary world that has abandoned hope, that has embraced suffering, that sees no possibility for the assuagement of desire.
The first personage to strip the self in service to perception is the writer.
Brecht, in his last poem: "And I always thought: the very simplest words / Must be enough." Shedding accretions of marketing, commercial, corporate language: we worry about accessibility but perversely absorb trademarks, commercial neologisms of the Western marketplace, into our work, segregating ourselves by market sector. Or similarly: segregating ourselves with the technical language of art, with academicism. But the aim is not mere simplicity, though that describes a language that popular culture, in its simplifying market-oriented tropes, aims to destroy: the aim is a language of erotic precision and ambivalence, of supple passion and desire that leads not to a purchase of a material object but access to a condition in which the material has no dominion.
The Bodied Performer
Technique as a diamond-tipped drill, shaping the smallest but most brilliant of gems for public display.
The training of an actor today in the United States is entirely the wrong way around. It usually begins with movement work and ends with scene work, almost as if the entire academic project is to smother theatrical possibility in theatrical convention: the potential of open exploration is finally constrained in the so-called glory of a traditional theater, film or television role. Instead, actors should use the written scene as the coarse material from which they form their sculpted movements, whittling, paring down and distilling whatever gestures are necessary to embody poetry. They em-body [sic] language, making it their own, bringing their selves and their precise training to the physical expression of the spoken word, opening it like a flower.
A first rehearsal: The play memorized, the easy part. Off-book from the start, the performers devote all of their time to inhabiting the language, to finding gesture that is the physical equivalent of the language. To finding themselves in the common words the dramatist has organized. The character itself: a mere hook to hang a performance (a singing) from, as a plot is a mere hook to hang lyricism (a song) from.
Grotowski: "In the final result we are speaking of the impossibility of separating spiritual and physical. The actor should not use his organism to illustrate a 'movement of the soul,' he should accomplish this movement with his organism."
The actor does not enter the role; the role enters the actor as the performer finds the passions of the sensibility in herself, her voice, her movements.
As with simple gestures: fully bodied, the smallest movement of the hand, a tilt of the head, says all that there is to say, more than kicking a bucket across a room.
Practicum: Sets, Costumes, Lights
The most trivial question is the most simply answered: What will it look like? It will look like this: A small theater of 50-100 seats, of flexible configuration; no sets, for the emphasis is on word and movement, not décor - a basic black that outlines the contour of the human body in white light will be enough; few but simple and attractive props; actresses and actors trained in the precision of elocution and movement; simple familiar stories told with simple and lyrical words; a rejection of the reproduced image such as video or film (for their possibilities detract from the possibilities of the theater).
Theater is neither a circus nor a slaughterhouse. For those purposes, circuses and slaughterhouses already exist. Theater is lingual, bodied contemplation: a refuge: a collective monastery.
The clothed body: a recognition that the body is object par excellence. Costume as the theatricalization of nudity, a provocative metaphor for the naked self.
Light is color and paint shaped to reveal the body. More than this is not necessary: the body is most beautiful against a blackness.
What we forget about religious fasts is that they
prepare us for ecstatic visions. So too the poverty of the theater: starving
ourselves of the luxuries we've relied on (sets, spectacular sound and
light effects, large theaters), we prepare for the ecstatic moment.
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